College Basketball Mid-Major Report: Breaking Down VCU, Chattanooga & Louisiana Tech
Photo by John Byrum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images. Pictured: Darius Banks (Chattanooga)
Fourth Edition of 2021-22 Mid-Major Report
There is no sport like college basketball and no event like March Madness.
One of the biggest reasons for this is the art of the Cinderella team. From George Mason to Loyola Chicago to Oral Roberts, every March there’s a squad that comes out of nowhere to make noise and national headlines.
So, which team could that be this year? We’ll dive into three early candidates below — even if one has been there before.
With the mysterious underperformance of St. Bonaventure’s extremely veteran team, the Atlantic 10 has become wide open. Multiple teams — Davidson, Saint Louis and Richmond — have looked like the league’s best at times, but instead, I submit these VCU Rams.
No questions exist around the Rams’ defense. It is a nationally elite unit by any measure you prefer, be it efficiency rankings or raw per game or percentage stats. Coach Mike Rhoades has an arsenal of long athletes, and he deploys them with devastating precision.
Naysayers would point to VCU’s nation-leading 24.3% 3P defense as a regression candidate.
While that may be true to an extent, Rhoades’ VCU teams have proven to be one of the few squads that can consistently rank well in that category. Last year, VCU was 27th nationally in defensive 3P%. In 2018-19, the Rams ranked second.
VCU’s defense has been fabulous for the entire season. But what has turned the tide on the Rams’ prognosis has been the return of Ace Baldwin Jr. and his impact on the offense.
Baldwin, a jet-quick point guard with terrific vision and a burgeoning perimeter stroke, has given the Rams’ anemic offense a jolt. Before he came back from his Achilles injury, VCU could not score:
|Pre-Baldwin Average Total||0.846|
Following his return, though, the offense found some life:
|Average with Baldwin||1.025|
Having even a mild amount of balance in the attack has made VCU a viable A-10 title candidate — and a great team to back.
In those six games with Baldwin, VCU is 6-0 ATS. He has unlocked a new gear for the Rams, and A-10 futures are certainly appealing with him in the mix.
The SoCon has provided plenty of darlings in recent years. Fletcher Magee and Wofford burst onto the national scene in 2018-19, nearly toppling mighty Kentucky in the NCAA Tournament.
Prior to getting the Wake Forest job, Steve Forbes led ETSU to a 30-4 record, and his Buccaneers would have been a menace in the 2020 NCAA Tournament.
And in 2021, dunk machine Isaiah Miller and UNCG gave Florida State quite a scare in round one.
This year’s likely SoCon headache? The Mocs of Chattanooga.
The Mocs have all of the makings of a giant killer. They play slowly, minimizing possessions and forcing foes to execute in the half court. They’re an elite offensive rebounding team, helping to boost their shot quantity compared to their foes.
And most importantly, this team is bursting at the seams with talent.
It starts with the dynamic guard duo of Malachi Smith and David Jean-Baptiste. Both are certified snipers from the perimeter, and both are able facilitators for others, as well. Smith is a terrific rebounder, and though the Mocs do not run frequently, he can push selectively off of misses.
That perimeter tag team gravitates around the might of Silvio de Sousa inside. If that name sounds familiar to you, this is probably why.
A hyped recruit at Kansas, De Sousa has found his niche at Chattanooga, emerging into an unstoppable force in the paint. He’s one of the country’s best two-way rebounders, he protects the rim and he’s shooting over 60% from the field so far.
Complementing that trio is an effective supporting cast featuring multiple transfers, reinforcing the talent level in southeast Tennessee. With imports from Saint Louis, UCF, St. Bonaventure, James Madison and South Alabama as role players, Lamont Paris has assembled a roster with both star power and depth.
The market has wisened to Chattanooga’s dominance, but spots as a road favorite over inferior competition could be a key spot to back the Mocs. They’re 2-1 ATS in such spots thus far, with both covers coming in easy fashion.
Down the stretch in FIBA U19 hoops this summer, Team USA desperately needed some late buckets to hold off Canada. So where did they turn? To Wisconsin’s Johnny Davis, or Gonzaga’s Chet Holmgren, or Purdue’s Jaden Ivey?
The young Americans fed Louisiana Tech monster Kenneth Lofton Jr. time after time. The burly bruiser battered his way to the rim, finishing with his skilled left hand even against taller foes. That emergence has carried into a star turn for the Bulldogs’ sophomore.
As a sophomore, Lofton Jr. has boosted his production from 12.2 points and 7.5 rebounds as a freshman to 16.7 points and 10.9 boards a night. He’s one of the best post scorers in the country, and he has some surprising bounce and shake to his game, as well.
He simply cannot be guarded by single coverage, and his passing acumen has taken a slight step forward, as well.
The attention he draws opens the floor for his teammates. While not a glamorous cast of characters, several Bulldogs have stepped into key roles around Lofton Jr.
The dual-point guard system with Cobe Williams and Amorie Archibald has given them multiple ways to initiate offense. Exavian Christon has willingly stepped into the small-ball four role in what is really a four-guard lineup.
And transfers David Green (Hofstra), LaDamien Bradford (Texas A&M) and Keaston Willis (Incarnate Word) have added much-needed dynamism off the bounce.
The Bulldogs defend as well, ranking among the Conference USA’s best on that end.
That two-way balance has helped them to a 4-0 start atop the league standings. UAB, North Texas and Western Kentucky make for fierce competition, certainly. But Lofton Jr. and the Bulldogs have a great shot at earning the program’s first NCAA bid since 1991.
Of note to bettors: the Bulldogs are 8-4-1 ATS this year (and 3-1 in conference). The market may not have yet caught up to just how good this team is.